Christmas is almost here, and ‘tis the season for rich food traditions. Be it cookies and milk under the tree for Santa, candy canes or figgy puddings, it’s hard to think of a Christmas ritual that isn’t tied to food. And what proper bakery would go through a holiday season without a giant, delicate Yule log in the front case? The Yule log cake (or bûche de Noël for French speakers) is an elaborate creation consisting of a rolled, filled sponge cake, frosted with chocolate buttercream to look like tree bark and festooned with meringue mushrooms, marzipan holly sprigs, spun sugar cobwebs and any other sort of edible decoration.
The history of the Yule log cake stretches all the way back to Europe’s Iron Age, before the medieval era. Back then, Celtic Brits and Gaelic Europeans would gather to welcome the winter solstice at December’s end. People would feast to celebrate the days finally becoming longer, signaling the end of the winter season. To cleanse the air of the previous year’s events and to usher in the spring, families would burn logs decorated with holly, pinecones or ivy. Wine and salt were also often used to anoint the logs. Once burned, the log’s ashes were valuable treasures said to have medicinal benefits and to guard against evil. Some groups claimed the ashes would protect the bearer from lightning—an important quality at a time when houses (and most of the contents in them) were made of wood.
With the advent of Christianity, the Yule log tradition continued, albeit on a smaller scale. Families may have burned a log on Christmas Eve, but smaller hearths became the norm so huge logs were impractical. Those small hearths, however, were perfect for baking cakes. We don’t know who exactly made the first Yule log cake, but judging from the individual ingredients it could have been as early as the 1600s. Marzipan and meringue decorations, two of the most popular choices for Yule logs, appeared on many a medieval table. Sponge cake, which often constitutes the base of the log, is one of the oldest cakes still made today. It dates back to at least 1615, when the first known recipe appeared in Gervaise Markham’s tome “The English Huswife.”
Parisian bakers popularized the cake in the 19th century, and different bakeries became known for their more elaborate decorations. Nowadays, few people make Yule logs at home, but that doesn’t mean you should pass up a slice in favor of apple pie or a second helping of mashed potatoes. Enjoy your bûche de Noël, and think of the hundreds of years of history behind it.